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Can Law Enforcement Search Your Backpack Without A Warrant?

According to the Ohio Supreme Court, No. In State v. Burroughs, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-2146, the Court recently held that a specific exception to the warrant requirement, “the single purpose container exception”, applies only when the illegal contents of the container are readily apparent because of the nature of the container.

Background and Facts

Law enforcement obtained an arrest warrant for Kennedy Burroughs for obstruction of justice. Ultimately, they went to her residence to arrest her on this warrant.  Burroughs was hesitant to open the door and ultimately cracked it open slightly before promptly shutting it again while asking officer for more time. The officers tried to open the door but found it was locked. After law enforcement threatened to break the door down, Burroughs said she was coming. Law enforcement then looked into a window and saw Burroughs grab some baggies off a table and head towards the back of the house. Officers then kicked in the door and entered the house.  They found some marijuana residue and a closed bookbag with part of a plastic baggie caught in the zipper. Officers opened the bookbag and found marijuana inside, leading to Burroughs being charged with illegal possession of drugs.

Burroughs moved to suppress the evidence as an illegal search and seizure but the trial court denied her motion. On appeal, the Third District disagreed with the trial court’s logic but upheld its decision finding that “the single purpose container exception” permitted the search. Burroughs then appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court arguing that the police needed a warrant to search the backpack. The State argued that the single purpose container exception allowed the officers to search the bag.


That exception originates a United States Supreme Court case involving the warrantless search of luggage in a car based on an anonymous tip. The Supreme Court noted that “some containers (for example a kit of burglar tools or a gun case) by their very nature cannot support any reasonable expectation of privacy because their contents can be inferred from their outward appearance. Because the luggage in that case was not a single purpose container of this sort, the court held that a warrant was required. The single-purpose-container exception is an offshoot of the plain-view doctrine, where an officer may seize an object in plain view without a warrant if (1) the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment in arriving at the place from which the evidence could be viewed, (2) the object’s incriminating nature is immediately apparent, and (3) the officer has a right to access the object where it is located.  When the requirements of the plain-view doctrine are satisfied, law enforcement can seize a closed container but must obtain a warrant to search it.

Not surprisingly, this exception is rarely used. The Ohio Supreme Court even noted that neither it nor the Supreme Court of the United States has ever relied on it to allow a warrantless search. As a result, the Supreme Court of Ohio found the search of Burroughs’ bag unconstitutional. Although law enforcement had probable cause to seize the bag, they could not search it without a warrant.  It noted a bookbag, an object commonly used to carry a wide variety of item such as books, lunch, private letters, weapons. It further added that the bookbag at issue was not transparent and its illicit contents could not be observed without opening it.

While the single purpose container exception seems extremely limited in its application (i.e. what does a burglar’s kit actually look like), the Court does raise an interesting point about transparent bags, especially as they become more prevalent as the only bags allowed at sporting events. However, its likely that anything seen through a transparent bag would fall under the plain view exception.